I wonder what it is that you might expect out of an experience of God. What emotions do you think might trigger if you were in God’s presence? If you were experiencing God?
Take a moment to reflect on what you would hope to feel out of such an experience?
Whatever words you have used reflect your assumptions, your expectations and even your previous experiences of God’s presence in your life.
It is an important thing to reflect on for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because often the hope we have in these experiences or our previous encounters sustain us in our own journey through life and in our faith. And, secondly, these hopes and experiences shape our witness of faith to others.
During my trip to Japan one of my hosts, a Buddhist in his spirituality, asked me the question directly “Do you experience God?” To which I answered “Yes” but, of course, then he wanted to know “How?”
How do you experience God?
We have already reflected on that a little bit in identifying some words and feelings that we might associate with encountering God but I want us to reflect a little more on this question based on the readings that we have heard today.
We are going to take a snapshot from Job, Mark and from Hebrews to explore what it means to encounter God.
In the reading from Job there appears to be a sense of God playing some great game of divine hide’n’seek. Job declares:
“If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides,
and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right,
but I cannot see him.”
God remains elusive, mysterious, hidden. But when we think on Job’s suffering and Job’s desire to come into God’s presence what we find is that Job wants to encounter to God to ask the question “Why?” “Why am I suffering?” What have I done?”
Job’s questioning very much arises out of the conversation he is ensconced in with his three friends. In the previous Chapter Job’s friend Eliphaz has essentially said to Job “Look mate you must have done something wrong. Agree with God and be at peace.”
Last week Marilyn explored some of the difficulties around suffering in her sermon so I am not going to revisit too deeply what she said but simply to remind you that there are those among us, as there were in Job’s time, who interpret there situation in life as a reflection of their relationship with God: it is very much about reward and punishment.
As a minister I have heard this many times when people have asked me in the midst of a difficult time “What have I done to deserve this?” Or, alternatively, when we judge what is happening to another person with phrases like “They made their own bed now they have to lie in it.”
Life is far more complex than this and the broader story of Job is about exploring this complexity and confronting with mystery.
Yet it would seem that Job is being influenced by this world view and importantly the assumptions made about divine activity in this world view. Job’s desire to see God is a desire born out of questioning.
Yet despite God’s perceived absence seeing God has another element to it for Job – “Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him.”
If we were to simply consider some key words that might answer the question How do you experience God? Based on the encounter between Job and his friends we might use words like: reward, prosperity, punishment, suffering, absence, mystery, questioning, confusion, fear & terror.
How do you experience God?
Are these words that are helpful for our own journey of faith and for our witness to others? do these correspond with the thoughts and feelings that we had at the beginning?
Let’s move now into the New Testament and to the reading about Jesus encounter with the wealthy young man. Now for the purpose of this sermon I would want to remind you that when he hear Jesus speaking his words are God’s words amongst us. To use the language of John’s Gospel he is the living Word of God.
When the young man comes to Jesus the initial reaction of Jesus is to ask the young man questions which seem to affirm his righteousness – the young man appears to have been doing the right thing. And maybe what the young man was seeking was an affirmation that he was going OK.
I think this is something many of us seek too in our relationship with God a word of affirmation that we don’t have to change anything and that everything we are doing is right on the money.
Yet, as we heard, Jesus pushed him further “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
For any of us here today these are certainly confrontational words, the can cause a deal of discomfort. How many of us have sold everything to give it to the poor and then followed Jesus?
I have had friends who inspire me in their faith who have pretty much done this but we know that the young man turns away and the disciples are left confused.
“Who then can enter the kingdom?”
The disciples appear in this moment to be operating out of the same world view as Eliphaz. So once again God’s presence, an encounter with divine truth, leads to confusion, disruption and mystery.
And so we might identify these words as ones which reflect again what an encounter with God is like: affirmation, questioning, confrontation, disruption, confusion and hope.
Why hope? Because Jesus response which is often lost in the impossibility of a camel and a needle’s eye is that with God all things are possible which brings me to the book of Hebrews
In the book of Hebrews we are told, “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” Already this morning we have explored the differences that might occur in an experience of the divine – it can bring affirmation and peace and comfort but it might also bring mystery and confrontation and confusion.
It can be an experience of absence of an experience of presence and encounter.
Yet whatever our experience of God and life there is another story of God’s closeness to us. That where we might think God is hidden or absence or we might be interpreting God’s presence in a particular way God knows us and sees us intimately and in this God cares for us.
God cares for us so deeply Jesus came among us to share our lives and to become our great high priest creating the pathway between God’s life and ours through the power of the Holy Spirit.
For me this is a source of comfort and hope. Whatever else I might want to say about my experience of life and of God the accuracy of my understanding is always limited and God and God’s love is not contingent, is not determined by my personal experience of God and life whether it is one which is positive or negative in a particular moment in which I find myself.
With God all things are possible and the possibilities of God are the possibilities we encounter in Jesus who comes to serve and save us, who reaches bringing healing and mercy, who is God ‘s love and grace walking amongst us. This does necessarily negate your or my experiences of life and of God but puts them in the context of a bigger story that regardless of what we think we are encountering there is a bigger story of God’s love whose trajectory is for the reconciliation and renewal of all things in Christ.
Maybe as Paul describe it “a hope in things not (yet) seen”.
How do you experience God?